Overhunting of megafauna such as mammoths may have force us to take up farming, ultimately leading to modern society
Why did we take so long to invent civilisation? Modern Homo sapiens first evolved roughly 250,000 to 350,000 years ago. But initial steps towards civilisation – harvesting, then domestication of crop plants – began only around 10,000 years ago, with the first civilisations appearing 6,400 years ago.
For 95% of our species’ history, we didn’t farm, create large settlements or complex political hierarchies. We lived in small, nomadic bands, hunting and gathering. Then, something changed.
We transitioned from hunter-gatherer life to plant harvesting, then cultivation and, finally, cities. Strikingly, this transition happened only after the ice age megafauna – mammoths, giant ground sloths, giant deer and horses – disappeared. The reasons humans began farming still remain unclear, but the disappearance of the animals we depended on for food may have forced our culture to evolve.
Early humans were smart enough to farm. All groups of modern humans have similar levels of intelligence, suggesting our cognitive capabilities evolved before these populations separated around 300,000 years ago, then changed little afterwards. If our ancestors didn’t grow plants, it’s not that they weren’t clever enough. Something in the environment prevented them – or they simply didn’t need to.
Global warming at the end of the last glacial period, 11,700 years ago, probably made farming easier. Warmer temperatures, longer growing seasons, higher rainfall and long-term climate stability made more areas suitable for cultivation. But it’s unlikely farming had been impossible everywhere. And Earth saw many such warming events – 11,700, 125,000, 200,000 and 325,000 years ago – but earlier warming events didn’t spur experiments in farming. Climate change can’t have been the only driver.
Human migration probably contributed as well. When our species expanded from southern Africa throughout the African continent, into Asia, Europe and then the Americas, we found new environments and new food plants. But people occupied these parts of the world long before farming began. Plant domestication lagged human migration by tens of millennia.
If opportunities to invent farming already existed, then the delayed invention of agriculture suggests our ancestors didn’t need, or want, to farm.
Agriculture has significant disadvantages compared to foraging. Farming takes more effort and offers less leisure time and an inferior diet. If hunters are hungry in the morning, they can have food on the fire at night. Farming requires hard work today to produce food months later – or not at all. It requires storage and [ … ]
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